Shorthanded Aztecs open 2016-17 season with a 69-59 win over USD


Kelly Smiley, Photo Editor

Junior guard Trey Kell (3) stares down his defender, USD sophomore guard Olin Carter III.

by Zach Engberg, Assistant Sports Editor

San Diego State men’s basketball began its 2016-17 season with the unveiling of its National Invitational Tournament Semifinalist banner, a stark reminder of the consequences of its 53-48 loss to University of San Diego last season.

Before the game, head coach Steve Fisher reminded his team of the loss last season, and of what it would have to do to respond.

“I said, ‘here’s the cover of their media guide,’ and it showed [senior forward Brett Bailey], who dunked to win the game, celebrating like he should,” Fisher said. “On the board, I also wrote ‘Forgive, but don’t forget.’ You can forgive yourself for what happened, but don’t forget it. Come out and play like a program that has pride and history and respect.”

The Aztecs would heed Fisher’s words, taking down the Toreros 69-59 in their season opener.

After falling to a 31-22 deficit, SDSU outscored the Toreros 47-28, at one point posting a 35-10 run from the end of the first half to the beginning of the second half.

The win, however, did not come without roadblocks, primarily early on.

Missing junior forward Malik Pope, senior forward Matt Shrigley, and sophomore transfer forward Max Hoetzel, the Aztecs ran out an 8-man rotation, forcing the starters to log big minutes. 

Junior guard Trey Kell played 35 minutes, and redshirt sophomore forward Zylan Cheatham and sophomore transfer guard Montaque Gill-Caesar added 36 and 32 minutes, respectively.

The starting unit featured only one player, Cheatham, standing over 6-foot-6 and the Toreros took advantage.

USD came out attacking the unprotected rim, starting the game 4-4 from the field, all four buckets coming at the rim.  

The Toreros were 12-for-17 shooting to open the first half, responding every time it seemed the Aztecs had closed the gap or regained momentum. 

Starting from behind, the Aztecs quickly picked up five team fouls in the first four minutes of the contest, and had nine fouls with 7:56 remaining in the first half. 

Sophomore guard Jeremy Hemsley committed the first two fouls, forcing head coach Steve Fisher to sit him at the 17:11 mark, keeping him off the floor for extended time early in the game. 

The loss of Hemsley, slowed the Aztecs’ offense, which started the game 6-for-16 from the field, their struggles highlighted by three air-balled 3-point jumpers. 

SDSU trailed, with the exception of a few moments, for most of the first half – before Hemsley and Kell took over. 

Trailing 31-22 with 15:02 left in the first half, the backcourt duo reeled off 13 straight SDSU points to end the half, giving the Aztecs the 35-33 lead. 

“We came out so pumped up,” Kell said of the early game struggles, “we had to come back down to earth and play our normal game. They were making some tough shots, so credit to them. We just had to keep a level head and just know that there are 40 minutes in the game.”

Kell and Hemsley produced nearly all of the offense in the first half, combining for 25 points on 8-for-14 shooting.

The second half was much of the same.

After Cheatham opened the period with a layup, Hemsley scored seven straight points, and 11 of the first 20 SDSU points before picking up his fourth personal foul, keeping him on the bench for most of the game.

His final stamp came on a breakaway dunk, which gave the Aztecs their first double-digit lead at 51-41.

The Toreros hung around, cutting the deficit to 69-59 and holding SDSU without a made field goal for the final 7:10 of the game, but the efforts of Hemsley and Kell proved too much.

The two guards ended the game as the only Aztecs in double figures, as Hemsley scored a team-high 25 and Kell added 23.

“They’re gonna have to continue to play like that offensively, and they’re gonna have to continue to play better defensively,” Fisher said of his guard duo.

Hemsley, who shot 9-for-15 from the field, and 4-for-5 from behind the arc, said his outburst was somewhat of a surprise to USD.

“I don’t think they really expected me to shoot, but that’s something that I’ve been working on for a long time,” Hemsley said. “The bigs did a good job of freeing me open and setting screens, and the defense was surprised about that.”

Freshman forward Jalen McDaniels did not play in the season opener, and redshirt freshman forward Nolan Narain logged only four minutes, scoring two points and picking up one foul in his short stint.

Fifth-year transfer forward Valentine Izundu added 16 minutes off the bench, grabbing three rebounds and blocking two shots while going scoreless in his first game for SDSU.

Fisher said the Aztecs will need more of the same energy and impact from Izundu going forward, especially against Gonzaga University.

“I was really pleased with Valentine tonight,” Fisher said. “He did a nice job for us – blocked a shot or two, changed the arc on another, rebounded a couple of balls. He gave us good minutes. We’re gonna need that.” 

Izundu was one of the bright spots on an otherwise streaky defensive performance, which, Hemsley said, will need to change as the season picks up.

“It will be tough to beat us if we are hitting open shots and if our jumpers are falling, but it really starts on the defensive end,” Hemsley said. “If we don’t have that going into the game, then we are very beatable. So it has to click on both ends.”

The Aztecs next test will be No. 14 Gonzaga, who they play on Monday night in Spokane, Washington, hoping to improve to 2-0 on the season.